When people were asking me for the overall best portable speaker I was already raving about the Beats Pill XL without even having heard it in detail. The only chance I had for a short listen was outdoors together with a friend when we compared his new Pill XL to his iLoud and my Bose Soundlink Wireless Music System. Of course I was pretty impressed by the Pill XL, as it was the sheer power easily blowing the iLoud out of the water, nearly matching the Soundlink Wirless Music System in overall loudness. But it is a completely different experience you get when you listen to a speaker indoors in a more controlled enviroment, where you don't feel the need to crank it to the maximum. Meanwhile I own the Beats Pill XL, and while it is indeed an impressively powerful speaker, it definitely has some quirks regarding sound.
Ahead of the Pill XL Beats already had the small Pill on the market, which was one of the most unimpressive portable speakers I have ever heard. The small Pill was extremely overpriced producing a tinny distorted sound that was not better than any of those 20$ minispeakers which you could get in every junk-store.
Beats had to come up with something considerably better to cover the embarrassment the original Pill had created, although there still seem to be many owners who actually love this piece of garbage. Meahwile there is even a new Pill 2.0 version out, which has some new features, but soundwise nothing changed at all. But now let's have a look at the bigger Pill and if it really can live up to the expectations with some facts about the speaker and its features first:
The Pill XL is not a huge speaker, it is still pretty portable, weighting about 1.5kg which makes it slightly heavier than the contenders like Soundlink III, TDK A33 etc, but still lighter and more compact than the UE Boombox, or the Soundlink Wireless Music System or a Sounddock Portable. It has about the size of a 1.5l PET-bottle, therefore it should find space in any bag or backpack for transport. Beats also offers some additional shoulder strap, so that you can hang it just there, like an old school boombox, in case you manage to find the strap somewhere for order.
As the Pill XL has a handy grip, you can just grab it with your right hand, and have the main volume controls perfectly reachable with your thumb. Walking like that through the street with the Pill XL cranked to the max, you should definitely be able to annoy all other nearby pedestrians.
But the Pill XL is also a pretty well equipped speaker full of useful features. It can charge external devices through the built in USB-port. It can be paired with another Pill XL or the smaller Pill 2.0 for wireless stereo or double-mode. It even has an auxiliary output, so that it will act as a Bluetooth receiver. Plug in another speaker and you can boost the sound even more. Of course NFC and Apt-X is supported as well. All ports are hidden behind a rubber-flap with exception of the power-jack, which of course needs a proprietary 12V charger. There is also an update-port, which gives some hope for future support and maybe some software updates.
The lit Beats logo at the front acts as a control button, where you can stop or start music directly from the speaker, skip tracks forward or backwards and take calls. And last but not least you get a 5-step battery indicator with dedicated LEDs at the back and through an own symbol on your mobile phone.
Talking about the battery, it is indeed very impressive. Beats claims 15 hours although they don't say at which volume. I have tested it at top volume or slightly below and I got 7-8 hours out of one charge, which is really class leading, especially when the loudness is considered that the Pill XL is able to reach. Some other speakers I have tried didn't even manage to reach 6 hours at their half volume, which probably would be something like 35% on the Pill XL.
The Pill XL seems to have it all, it is just the missing volume-sync beteween the speaker and the bluetooth device where it falls short. You have 2 different volume controls to deal with, but I found that setting the speaker to the maximum volume and then controlling the volume from the player afterwards, didn't result in any unwanted processing artefacts. The sound of the Pill XL (control of bass-output, soft limiter etc) seems to be adjusted dynamically by analyzing the input and not so much dependent on the absolute level the speaker is set to, unlike Bose speakers where you can definitely hear a difference in sound if the speaker is set to highest level, while the player only plays at low volume.
The Pill XL has 35 dedicated volume-steps. Already the lowest step is kind of loud. If you want to make it even softer, you have to additionally turn the volume down on your Bluetooth device. The first volume step of the Pill XL has about the same loudness as 25% on the Bose Soundlink Mini, which might be already a bit too loud for some enviroments like an office etc.
At highest levels on the other hand you will hear a bit of hiss, and I also noticed some crackling sounds in the background independent of the volume the speaker is set to, which probably might be some Bluetooth relicts. The hiss goes only away, if you turn the speaker volume down completely.
Quite annoying are the welcome-sounds, which are rather loud. When powering the Pill XL up, you will hear some sweep tone, if you successfully pair a Bluetooth device, you will hear another intrusive tone, which is much too loud for my taste. When Bluetooth connection is lost or cancelled, you will hear a similar tone equally loud. The power down tone is another sweep, sounding as if the speaker was running out of juice. Although all these tones might appear funky to some, I think a speaker doesn't need that kind of attention getters.
After 15 minutes without any input, the Pill XL will power down on its down, which it fortunately does completely silent, without any tone or other effects.
I think the build quality and design of the Pill XL are both top notch. The speaker feels as it could take some treatment. Only the shiny part at the back could be a little scratch-resistant. But the buttons at the back are all hidden behind a rubber-coating, so that you can even press them with wet hands. The choice of putting them at the back might appear strange, because they are hard to reach, when the speaker is set up and ready to play, but holding it in your hands, the buttons seem to be placed just perfectly.
The metal mesh that surrounds half of the speaker makes a rugged impression, but I am not sure how scratch resistant the coating might be. Have a look at the funny detail how the round openings of the mesh grille become squashed at the side endings. Here you can also find some retractable holes at the side, where you can probably just plug in the shoulder-strap.
Also a pity that the Pill XL is only available in black so far. The small Pill version comes in many different colors, maybe Beats will offer some other colors for the XL version too, which is to hope for, because black is the most unthankful color outdoors when the sun is shining.
I would also welcome an additional carrying bag for the Pill XL especially when much outdoor use is intended. Perfect would be a bag with acoustically transparent materials, so that the speaker can be left inside for listening. Maybe Beats will come up with some suitable cover on their own, or some other second parties might even offer something depending on the popularity of the Pill XL.
First thing you notice when you try the Beats Pill XL, how much volume this thing is able to produce. Although the sound becomes quite harsh at the highest level, it remains still nearly distortionfree with only some hints of dirtyness. When I tried the Beats Pill XL in a store side by side with some other speakers like the Bose Soundlink III, you could easily hear how much more powerful the Beats Pill XL was able to play without even having to crank it up that much. While the Bose Soundlink III was already struggling with most bass heavy songs at slightly higher levels due to dynamic compression artefacts and heavy bass-reduction, the Pill XL was just starting to warm up.
But once you take it home and try playing some known tunes at comfortable listening levels, you notice some deviations of what you usually are used to hear. The Beats Pill XL has some strangely sculpted frequency response, with some frequencies sounding as if they were processed through a comb-filter. The treble ist thin and can sometimes sound quite sharp, and bass is powerful but boomy, without much depth, and everything in-between is somewhat subdued or missing.
When comparing the Beats Pill XL directly to the Sonos Play:1 a similar sized or even smaller speaker that is known for its rather unbiased frequency response, you will notice that the Sonos Play:1 just sounds "right", while the Beats Pill XL sounds "off". Just when you turn the volume higher, the Play:1 will start to struggle, while the Beats Pill XL will remain brave nearly up to maximum, which is quite a bit louder than the Play:1 is manage to output. Also worth mentioning that the Pill XL is not very directional. Of course it sounds worse, when listened from an angle, but you can even listen to it from behind and still get an acceptable sound field, probably because of the exposed tweeters that are mounted at the sides aiming upwards.
But for listening at comfortable levels, the Beats Pill XL is not a speaker that really sounds convincing. The biggest problem is bass, which is pretty punchy with lots of attack, but lacks any deep impact. Even a Bose Soundlink Mini manages to produce a more profound bass.
In fact only the passive radiator at the back seems to be responsible for all the low-frequency output, you won't hear much lows, when listening closely to the main drivers. And although it is only one single passive radiator, the speaker does not vibrate too much when compared to some other speakers I have tried which have the radiators mounted on one side only. You can definitely feel the vibration when holding the speaker in your hand but it doesn't dance around or rattle against the base.
Outdoors it helps positioning the Pill XL directly on the ground, as the bass will disperse better like that. If you have some wall, you can also try putting the back of the speaker close to it, so that all most frequency energy emited to the back will not be lost somewhere but reflected to the front again.
When I compared both Pill XL and Soundlink Mini at lower levels, I was surprised the Beats Pill XL to really sound worse. It is not that the bass is missing, it is more the tuning of the bass which sounds as if someone was playing with an equalizer without knowing what he was doing. The Pill XL has already quite a strong roll-off in bass frequencies below 80Hz, while the Soundlink Mini will play down to about 60Hz. In fact I think that the Beats Pill XL is really just suitable for particular genres, where you usually won't care about an uneven frequency response. House and Dancetracks sounded really cool with the Pill XL. You felt the need to turn it louder and louder, just because the sound became more enjoyable the louder it got! Most similar sized speakers just cannot keep up with the power of the Pill XL. They start sounding worse, the louder you turn them, the Soundlink Mini being the best example. It sounds perfectly balanced at levels between 40-60%, but starts to lose most of its impact at levels above 75%. When the Soundlink Mini is played at maximum you will get lots of dynamic compression and an overall sound where not much of the original bass has been left. The Pill XL can easily play twice as loud but still without any signs of obvious limiting or compression. Bass starts to get dialed back during the last 5 notches, but up till there everything remains fine.
I only ask myself, when do I need this power and volume? It is nice to know to really have this potential, but most of the time, I won't listen to music that loud. Outdoors is one scenario, where you really need higher volume. If you intend to use the speaker outdoors very often you need all the loudness the Pill XL can provide.
I prepared one video that shows a comparison between the Beats Pill XL and the Bose Soundlink Mini at different volume levels. You will notice in the very first part the Soundlink Mini to sound fatter and rounder. The Pill XL has less mids and a more boomy sound. The Mini starts to lose its advantage from 60% and above, and playing at its top volume, the Pill XL still sounds the same as at lower levels, while the Soundlink Mini has lost all of its bass and strong dynamic compression kicked in. Up from there the Pill XL can still play twice as loud although you will hear that now treble become sharper, while bass is slightly reduced. But distortion is pretty well under control and no obvious peak limiting is noticeable.
The second part shows an outdoor comparison of both speakers. The Soundlink Wireless Music System is still one of the loudest speaker I have tried that compact. The Pill XL can reach about 70% of the Soundlink's volume. Both still sound rather clean at this level. The Bose can play quite a bit louder, but only at cost of stronger distortion and a much more compressed sound which is not that punchy as that from the Pill XL anymore.
Soundwise the Bose wins. It has a more mature and more serious sound, while being hardly bigger. It weights nearly 2kg, which makes it 1/4 heavier than the Pill XL, but thanks to the bass-reflex port at the back which acts as a handle it is nearly equally portable as the Pill XL. If you have a bag where the Pill XL fits in comfortably, the Soundlink Wireless Music System should also find place, as it is higher but overall rather slim.
+ nice design, great build quality
+ not too big, not too heavy
+ convenient carrying handle
+ lots of useful features (NFC, AptX, charging of external devices, auxiliary output)
+ pairing of 2 speakers for true wireless stereo or double mode
+ abilitiy to control track changes or hands-free directly from the speaker
+ very loud (by far loudest in its class)
+ verly long battery life, even at top volume up to 8 hours
+ very dynamic sound, no obvious limiting or dynamic compression noticable, even at top volume
+ nearly distortionfree at top volume
+ healthy amount of bass (up to 85% no obvious bass reduction)
+ treble not very directional
- shiny surface on the back might be prone to scratches
- no cover or carrying bag available
- quite sculpted and unnatural sound
- bass boomy but not overly deep (roll-off below 80Hz already)
- treble a bit harsh, especially on top volume
- sound below average at low levels
- a bit of hiss and crackling sounds hearable
- loud status and welcome tones
- only available in black